Batteries Not Included

Batteries Not Included. Amblin Entertainment 1987.

Before watching the movie:

The log line for the movie I’m expecting this to be is something like “the elves and the shoemaker, but with extraterrestrial robots”. That’s how I’m interpreting “desperate people get help from tiny robotic aliens”. The title seems more like a topical joke than anything particularly related to that story.

What particularly interests me is that Brad Bird has a writing credit. Spielberg’s name got this movie made, but I wonder if I can spot the early Brad Bird in the story.

After watching the movie:

Determined to put up a shiny new tower, a developer sends thugs to scare out anyone in the last old building who couldn’t be bought out. But five holdouts won’t go so easily. For Frank and Faye Riley, the building isn’t just their home, it’s their livelihood, so much as their diner can still operate. Also Faye is delusionally living in the past waiting for their son Bobby to come home. Mason the artist is convinced that such an old building should be preserved for historical value. For retired boxer/handyman Harry and pregnant young woman Marisa, they just don’t have anywhere else to go. Just when they’re about to lose everything, some tiny, helpful flying saucer beings come to live in the building, and now the residents have a chance.

When half the characters are machines, you have to have effects you can have faith in. The Little Guys are done so well I can’t say with any certainty which shots are wire puppetry and which are motion-control model effects. It’s a particularly interesting example of how speed communicates scale, or in this case, the lack of scale. The motion of the larger couple in flight is almost identical to classic alien flying saucer effects, but they perform the same moves at speeds that don’t evoke comparisons to molasses, so they feel like they’re less than two feet across. Sound design probably also has a role in this, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the animation.

The character arc balance is a little off. I only really felt like the Rileys had a complete story. Mason and Marisa are mainly involved to fall in love, and while they’re fairly round characters, they also just kind of drift together without much reason other than because they’re about the same age, fighting to keep their place in the building, and don’t hate each other. And Harry ends up being very important to the plot, but not very strongly developed. I didn’t really know what his deal was until I read a bit about him elsewhere.

I wasn’t entirely sold on why they’re all determined to not leave. It only really made sense for the Rileys, but without that the whole movie falls apart, so I can’t poke at it too much. That could have been better defined though.

This is just a cute story about what if the little people got to win over big business that wants to crush them. I don’t really have an idea how “little living, self-reproducing machines” fit into that theme, but they’re almost as cute as Mason and Marisa.

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